As we have all witnessed in the last few months, 2017 has produced an incredibly destructive hurricane season. For many of us not living in the affected areas, just watching the devastation on TV and hearing about it on the radio or social media can also cause a deep sense of fear and anxiety.
It can even cause many to suffer secondhand trauma or more specifically, Secondary Trauma Stress (STS). STS is a psychiatric condition which mimics symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It affects individuals who did not witness the traumatic event firsthand but were still exposed to it in other ways.
When we are faced with crisis situations of this magnitude like floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, war, terrorism, etc., we feel our sense of safety and security is compromised — we experience trauma. This kind of emotional devastation can make us fearful for ourselves and for our loved ones. For most people this anxiety and worry is manageable, but for others it can become incapacitating. Trauma is fear on steroids.
Hence, symptoms that resemble Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can develop even by experiencing it from afar. Secondhand trauma is indeed real.
According to the DSM-V, PTSD is a debilitating anxiety disorder manifesting after a traumatic experience that involves an actual or perceived threat of death or serious injury. Research shows that about 8% of Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Women are more likely to be effected than men.
Remember, anxiety is first and foremost a critical survival mechanism. It’s a vital throwback function dating back to our ancestors, so understanding its adaptive function is important.
The part of your brain called the amygdala, or the fear center, is your private 911 operator. It’s the first responder to any perceived threat even if the threat is thousands of miles away. The brain then dispatches the signal to the body increasing blood pressure, heart rate, etc. Vital hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are then sent into the blood stream which gets the body ready for fight-or-flight (the body’s own built-in defense response system).
It’s essential to understand that if evolution put anxiety there to safeguard us from injury, it has to be fail-safe, meaning it has to work every time no matter what. What’s the point of having a 911 operator that is incredulous or unsure? Otherwise humans would have perished as a species a long time ago.
Since it’s an iron-clad system, it also means it cannot always distinguish between real fears and imagined fears. For example, being late for an important meeting or dreading going to the dentist may feel as frightening as having a gun to your head or being chased by a hungry bear. Therefore you may also struggle to distinguish between disasters close to home that could happen to you and ones that are far away and unlikely to happen to you.
So, despite how it makes us feel and how debilitating it can be, anxiety can also be an ally. At times it may feel like a dubious partner, but either way we need to coexist with it.
Signs to pay attention to if you have been affected by the “emotional devastation” of the recent disasters.
- Do you excessively worry about loved ones affected by the recent hurricanes? Do you excessively worry about anyone suffering from the effects of these hurricanes? Strangers too.
- Do you feel super anxious, fearful, panicked? Do you have heart palpitations? Racing thoughts and labored breathing?
- Do you feel numb, detached or lacking in emotional responsiveness?
- Do you experience increased arousal? Do you feel irritable, angry, have trouble concentrating? Do you have trouble sleeping?
- Do you re-experience images or flashbacks of the devastation throughout the day? Do you have recurring bad dreams or nightmares about it?
- Do you avoid situations, places or even people that remind you of it?
Here are some tips to help manage your anxiety:
Accept that you DON’T have control. Accept that you don’t have control over much at all, especially not natural disasters. Keep a healthy perspective and try to focus on what you DO have control over, like your job, taking care of your kids, keeping your home safe, caring for others, etc.
Accept your fear. It’s natural to feel scared. Allow yourself to acknowledge the anxiety as a natural component of your fight/flight response system which is there to help protect the body from harm. God or evolution did not put it there to harm you. It is there to protect you.
Don’t isolate. Stay connected. Fears are fleeting, but human contact is solid and reliable. Connect with others and talk about your fears and concerns. Maintaining social contacts and engaging in activities can help preserve a sense of healthy consistency and provide meaningful opportunities for sharing feelings and relieving tension.
Maintain a sense of normalcy. Don’t change the composition of your day-to-day living. Keep routines active. Keep engaging in hobbies, meeting with your friends, going to the movies, to dinner, etc. A sense of normalcy and daily structure also helps to keep your perspective healthy and leaves less opportunity for the mind to wander off and over-magnify your fears.
Limit your exposure to media coverage. We all know that staying informed is a good thing to do in these crisis situations, but too much exposure can heighten fears and cause your anxiety to escalate. Your mind can only take so much.
And lastly, if your symptoms of anxiety begin to overwhelm you and it impairs your ability to function on a day to day basis, seek professional help. Reach out to a trained counselor or a mental health clinician for guidance and support. Remember, anxiety and phobias are treatable conditions that should never be underestimated.